How the 2020 candidates should talk about immigration
© Greg Nash

In 2016, President TrumpDonald John TrumpUPS, FedEx shut down calls to handle mail-in ballots, warn of 'significant' problems: report Controversial GOP Georgia candidate attempts to distance from QAnon Trump orders TikTok parent company to sell US assets within 90 days MORE rewrote the playbook on immigration. He successfully appealed to white, working-class voters by promising to protect what they see as their values and cultural identity, stoked fears vis-à-vis a changing economy and changing demographics, and commit to spending money on them - while keeping “others” out.

In a matter of weeks, the first votes of 2020 will be cast in Iowa.

And Democrats, who are set to take the debate stage once again this week, have a chance to take back the narrative.


Over the past year and a half, the organization I lead, the National Immigration Forum, has convened more than 45 “living room conversations” with police officers, faith leaders, business owners, and other Americans in moderate and conservative communities, to study and learn about the attitudes that inform people’s perceptions about immigration.

What we found talking to people in Hudson, Wis.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and beyond, is that fears related to identity define American politics. When it comes to immigration, people in these communities, particularly white, working-class voters, have deep cultural, security, and economic fears all linked to their concept of identity.

They want to know if immigrants and refugees are isolating in enclaves or integrating as English speakers; if they are threats to Americans, or protectors of Americans and American values; and, they want to know if immigrants and refugees are taking jobs and services – or contributing to our economy and society.

There’s a reason President Trump loves talking about immigration. It is easy to mislead someone that immigrants and refugees are threats, refusing to learn English, and taking jobs and services. Boris Johnson gets that. It’s why he proclaimed days before the UK election that he would stop European Union migrants from treating Britain “as their own country” – a promise that powered him to a landslide win.

And yet, despite what we’ve lived through these past few years in the U.S., there is an opening for sensible immigration reforms. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 70 percent of Americans believe immigration is a good thing for the country. And in their 10th annual American Values Survey, the Public Religion Research Institute found that, “Unlike Americans’ conflicted views on immigration policies, Americans tend to be more favorable toward immigrants overall. When asked what Americans think of immigrants coming to the U.S. today, the vast majority indicate immigrants are hardworking (85%), have strong family values (81%), mostly keep to themselves (72%), and make an effort to learn English (56%).”


Herein lies the opportunity for Democratic candidates running for president in 2020’s immigration debate: rather than let Trump, or the Twitter-left, seize the issue, tell a constructive story about immigration in the 21st century that acknowledges the fear and insecurity many Americans face, while offering a positive vision of newcomers creating jobs, adding to the cultural vitality of cities and towns, and helping law enforcement and our military keep our communities safe.

To understand this, look at Luzerne County, around Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

President Obama carried Luzerne County by nearly 5 percentage points in 2012, and President Trump carried the county by more than 19 points four years later. Luzerne’s diversity index – a measurement that looks at the racial and origin-based composition of an area — increased by 360 percent from 2000 to 2015. Trump tapped into the fears of Luzerne County’s changes.

These are dynamics we see playing out in Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina and beyond.

Voters need to hear a constructive vision of immigration that appeals to immigrants’ and refugees’ work ethic, their faith, and their love of freedom and American values that compelled them to make the journey. They want to hear leaders pledge to build a tough, but fair, immigration system.

The fact is a pure policy argument won’t cut it. Not in the age of populist nationalism gaslit by misleading immigration claims.

Of course, it is important Democrats acknowledge how a modernized, complex, idea of America is good for workers and their families. But it is also important to acknowledge the fears Americans have when faced with this complexity.

The Democratic nominee must offer a sensible solution: an immigration system that boosts the American economy and upholds our nation’s values and moral authority while simultaneously keeping our borders safe. It should also create opportunities for undocumented men and women already working or studying here to stay and continue contributing to our nations’ growth.

Americans are looking for a new way forward on immigration. Democrats should listen for it and speak to it.

Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum and author of the 2017 book “There Goes the Neighborhood.” The National Immigration Forum recently released a working paper with recommendations for addressing the humanitarian and security challenges at the Southern border.